An earlier thread today accused Clark of "leading a terrorist training camp", the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia. That thread was accused by Clark supporters of being inherently inflammatory, and it was suggested that we move our discussion to a more neutral location. So, below, I'll try to present the facts as neutrally as I can. I do believe that it's important for all
of us as Democrats to understand what the SOA is (or was) and to consider the political implications of Clark's support for it.
At issue is a Boston Globe article availible here
at Common Dreams. Here's the heart of the issue, as I see it:
Clark never headed the school but had dealings with it when he led the US Southern Command from 1996 to 1997. He delivered a graduation speech there in 1996 and has praised the school before Congress. George Bruno, the cochairman of Clark's New Hampshire campaign and a former ambassador to Belize, was a paid adviser to the school when it reopened with a new charter in 2001.
Now, on the stump, Clark strongly defends the school, without denying that some graduates have committed atrocities in their home countries.
Here's some background on the SOA from SOA Watch, the school's major civilian watchdog group. More is availible at their FAQ. Keep in mind that it has a decidedly anti-SOA position.
The US Army School of Americas (SOA), based in Fort Benning, Georgia, trains Latin American soldiers in combat, counter-insurgency, and counter-narcotics. Graduates of the SOA are responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America. Among the SOA's nearly 60,000 graduates are notorious dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador, and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia. Lower-level SOA graduates have participated in human rights abuses that include the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the El Mozote Massacre of 900 civilians. (See Grads in the News.)
In an attempt to evade the public demand for the closure of the school, the SOA was renamed to "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC)" in 2001. The namechange was a result of a Department of Defense proposal included in the Defense Authorization Bill for Fiscal 2001, the name-change measure passed when the House of Representatives defeated a bi-partisan amendment to close the SOA and conduct a congressional investigation by a narrow ten vote margin. (See Talking Points, Critique of New School, Vote Roll Call.)
To expand on that a little bit, the SOA has been implicated in training military personnel in Latin American countries to suppress dissent using a variety of unsavory techniques-- including the famous death squads. They're especially known for violently breaking up labor unions and silencing protestors who demand human rights reform. Accordingly, a whole lot of people gather in Ft. Benning, GA every year to mount a huge protest. A large number of these protestors are Jesuit Catholic clergy, in response to the murder of six Jesuit priests by SOA graduates in El Salvador in 1989. In fact, the annual SOA protest has become something of a major event on Jesuit colleges across the United States.
Supporters of WHISC, including General Clark, do not deny the School's sordid history. However, they say reforms in the mid-90's have turned the organization into an organization that promotes human rights. However, beyond the simple declaration that the SOA now supports human rights, details about the reforms are rare. SOA Watch and the thousands who gather outside Ft. Benning every year obviously think they're still inadequate.
If I can switch from reporting to editorializing without pulling too much of a Nedra Pickler, I think that his response to SOA allegations will be very important for Gen. Clark. I personally know a number of people for whom the SOA is the major human rights issue in the United States, and it won't be enough to simply talk about "reforms" without much real detail if he wants to win them over. SOA Watch claims that the reforms to the school's curriculum have been limited at best, that courses teaching population suppression still exist, and courses intended to promote human rights are barely attended. Clark needs to address these claims before they become politically damaging. He may even need to disclose what he can about the scope of the 90's reforms.
My personal view is that Clark is qualified to be President. I think he's got a fairly good handle on human rights issues-- certainly his familiarity with the Balkan situation gives him more experience with the negative consequences of SOA-style tactics than most of the School's backers. But the potential for political damage with this story is certainly real, so it's counterproductive to hide from it. Like or not, this is an issue that Gen. Clark will have to respond to.